It may come as no surprise that in most industries, knowing equipment location and status is critical to perform various tasks. This is especially true in life sciences where organizations typically have thousands of assets spread and shared across massive, elaborate campuses with multiple facilities, units, and buildings. In fact, process industries like life sciences are extremely asset intensive, with their assets typically representing approximately 75 percent of the company's asset portfolio.
The life sciences industry is often plagued by the inability to identify and locate mission critical equipment needed to research, develop, and manufacture products. Enterprises can address these challenges in significantly different ways.
There are five scenarios with respect to asset tracking, each representing an increase in maturity along the asset management program as described below:
- Enterprises with No Asset Tracking System in Place
- Spreadsheets Updated on a Quarterly Basis
- Passive Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) with Handheld Readers
- Passive Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) with Fixed Readers
- Real-Time Location Systems (RTLS)
Manual searches take time, effort, and result in costly service delays, inhibiting experimentation and causing inefficiencies. Yet, many life sciences organizations have no formal asset tracking system in place. This obfuscates the ability to streamline predictive maintenance, foster intelligent workflows, and capitalize on data. In fact, one study revealed 70% of companies or more lack full awareness of when equipment is due for maintenance, upgrade or replacement.
Without an asset tracking system in place, many organizations experience significant downtime. In fact, 75% of lab managers find instrument maintenance and downtime to be their biggest challenge in managing their labs. With approximately 70% of lab productivity limited largely by scheduled maintenance or unplanned downtime, this greatly impedes research and development and adds to overhead when companies aren’t reaping the full potential from their existing inventory.
According to a survey by ARC advisory group, the financial impact of unplanned downtime in process operations (like that of life sciences) was previously underestimated - with the total cost of unplanned downtime for all global process industries easily in the range of $1 trillion. The survey states how the primary value proposition relies on adopting many of the new technologies emerging into the process automation world today (i.e., Industrial Internet of Things [IIoT], the cloud, digitalization) – which promotes asset reliability and reduces unplanned downtime.
Many of us think of the modern laboratory as an innovation hub, yet the use of spreadsheets for manual asset tracking, typically updated on a quarterly basis, is incredibly common and permeates the landscape. Spreadsheets rely on human data entry, which is cumbersome, tedious, and subject to error which often goes unnoticed. A study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) observed a 6.5 percent error rate in single entry (or data entered manually by one person), underscoring why 43 percent of lab leaders say data integrity is one of their primary pain points.
Substantial time can be wasted on tasks like manually entering data, performing error-checking, and the consolidating of various files. And, since equipment is needed daily for performing science, only collecting data on a quarterly basis poses challenges to performing the tasks at hand. The use of spreadsheets also leads to lack of version control and could pose complications when trying to locate a master file – as users often save multiple copies. This also leads to silos with disjointed, fragmented data scattered about departmentally.
What’s more, data security can be compromised with the use of spreadsheets, as there are limited permission controls for user-based or role-based accessibility. Relying on password protected sheets is simply not enough, and this lack of security can contribute to data manipulation from those looking to exploit it – compromising its validation and data integrity. Determining who has access to this information, and when they have access, isn’t a possibility, again, showcasing the lack of security inherent with using spreadsheets for asset tracking.
In the middle of the asset tracking maturity scale is passive RFID with handheld readers, which uses low-frequency, low-cost tags, does not require batteries to operate, and offers inconspicuous form factors to track assets of any size or value. Consisting of two main components, standard passive RFID tags have an antenna and either a microchip or integrated circuit for tracking purposes. While ideal for retail environments, it isn’t automated and requires a staff member to manually scan tags – typically, on a quarterly basis – to obtain its data which means the item cannot be found in real time. Rather, standard passive RFID provides “snapshots” of an item’s last known location – not its most current and active whereabouts.
However, this method is commonly employed across life sciences organizations for asset tracking but has its drawbacks. For example, despite having lower cost tags than other methods, a standard passive RFID solution can incur a high total cost of ownership (TCO) due to labor intensive manual processes and an inability to provide up-to-the-minute, accurate views of equipment location data. Plus, scalability proves challenging as more assets are tracked (upwards of tens of thousands) because of the extraneous manual labor required for keeping data up to date. This approach also lends to data silos, given that these systems often cannot transmit or receive data from systems of record, such as an ERP or asset management platform.
Passive RFID with fixed readers operates similarly to passive RFID with handheld readers except that the readers are placed at fixed locations, capturing data when assets with RFID tags pass through their range of operations. The primary difference between these two passive RFID systems is the level of automation and the nature of data collection. Fixed reader systems can provide automated data collection without requiring direct user interaction, whereas handheld reader systems require more manual intervention. Additionally, because passive RFID with fixed readers requires fixed infrastructure in all areas where you want to track your assets, deployments are typically limited to specific locations, as covering an entire facility or campus would be cost-prohibitive.
While using fixed readers provides some level of automation, location data is only provided when a tagged asset is in proximity to a reader, which can result in less accurate data and missed opportunities for asset optimization. Additionally, passive RFID technologies typically only provide room-level accuracy, offering no visibility into how assets are moved or utilized within a defined space. And, because passive RFID solutions require line-of-sight, assets stored in cabinets or refrigerators can go undetected, resulting in more time spent looking for assets, which can potentially lead to unnecessary repurchasing costs and delays in research and development timelines.
The most mature phase of asset tracking and management are IoT (internet of things)-enabled RTLS solutions, and the life sciences industry has taken notice of the benefits IoT affords. In fact, 30% of the top 20 pharma companies have adopted IoT to empower their organizations and drive ROI. RTLS can operate leveraging various technology protocols to harness true automation. One particularly effective approach to RTLS item finding combines 2.4 GHz low energy and LoRaWAN® technologies.
Leveraging low power technology, the tag batteries can last upwards of 10 years and are often user-replaceable, making them incredibly economical and sustainable. Tags are available in a variety of form factors and environmental ratings and can capacitate additional sensors to measure elements such as temperature, humidity, vibration, and acceleration, providing more context into your assets. They can also support additional methods of identification for last-meter wayfinding, using methods like remotely triggered buzzers or LED indicator lights, for example.
RTLS enables lab managers to track the exact location of their assets at any given time, and with sub-room-level accuracy, providing greater visibility into asset movements and usage patterns. With these solutions, comprehensive asset location data is automatically updated multiple times a day and stored in a secure, centralized application with various levels of predetermined, permission-based accessibility. Plus, the data can be seamlessly integrated with other systems of record, which eliminates silos and allows for the safeguarded, intelligent visualization of data for various purposes.
RTLS also provides a lower TCO compared to passive RFID because it requires fewer infrastructure components, such as readers and antennas, to achieve the same level of asset tracking accuracy. Additionally, unlike RFID, which is predominantly a point solution posing limitations to data sharing or integrations with other systems, RTLS is an IoT solution that opens the door to numerous other use cases for a higher return on investment (ROI).
For example, an RTLS solution can streamline maintenance and calibration schedules that help promote the stability and shelf life of equipment – while working to regulate sensitive storage conditions associated with supplies, samples, and thermosensitive assets, thus enhancing compliance and regulatory reporting processes. This also eliminates the need to outsource these tasks to high-priced specialty teams – saving a massive amount of time and expenses related to repairs, replacements, or repurchasing of equipment.
Deliver True Automation and Real Time Data with RTLS
Regardless of where you are with your asset tracking and management journey, it’s best to understand and either plan for or pivot to a modern asset management strategy like RTLS to reap the benefits of real-time tracking. In doing so, life sciences companies can promote cost savings, establish automated maintenance schedules, and empower equipment utilization – all of which translate to enhanced productivity and operational efficiencies. Contact MachineQ today to learn how RTLS can optimize and transform your laboratory into a smart, intelligent ecosystem.